Social Enterprise

8 dos and don'ts for brands on Instagram

As Instagram rolls out updates, brands can find new ways to reach new audiences. Here are 8 tips for brands on Instagram.

Instagram recently rolled out an update that introduced a redesigned Explore tab featuring trending tags and places. Users can also now search by locations to find the kinds of visually appealing content they want to bring into their feeds. It's another reminder for brands that this platform, with its 4.7% engagement rate, is worth spending some time one — but — only if you're willing to commit.

"I feel like people have high standards for Instagram," said Adobe Social's Carmen Sutter.

As the platform rests on strong visuals, it's difficult to phone it in.

Still, if you're thinking about getting your brand on board, or are already there and not totally sure what comes next, here are some dos and don'ts to help your brand be successful on Instagram.

1. Do get to know the platform

"Think long-term and commit to the platform," said Scott Barrett, associate director of social media at GREY NY. He said brands and agencies tend to think in terms of big shiny objects and tent-pole activations, but they should really work up to those big moments, first. "Learn the platform, learn what works, build an audience, develop advocates, and give yourself a solid base before testing something 'big,'"

And even if you don't have some big event or opportunity on the horizon, you can still produce a visually interesting Instagram account that people will want to follow.

"Use your office, home, or surrounding neighborhood as your canvas," Barrett said. Think about what's important to the consumer. What do they share on Instagram? "Whatever your brand or product offers, it's just a small part of your consumer's life. Use Instagram to illustrate how it fits into everything else that they are doing and thinking about."

2. Do use hashtags, but don't overdo it

Brands should use hashtags in order to connect with those searches, said Michelle Barna-Stern, executive director of content and campaigns at Blue State Digital, and adjunct professor at New York University.

One quick reminder: As is the case with any social network that uses hashtags, research the hashtag you want to use before you use it. Brands have gotten themselves into trouble for being unintentionally insensitive (DiGiorno Pizza, for example, unwittingly used a hashtag dealing with domestic violence in a humorous tweet and then had to apologize).

As a brand, you can also create a hashtag specific to a campaign or product, but regardless of whether it's an original hashtag or a pre-existing one, show some restraint. You don't need a paragraph's worth of hashtags — it's noise. And it looks a little desperate.

"One is usually good enough," said Ranvir Gujral, CEO of visual marketing automation platform Chute.

3. Don't just repurpose content

"Content is expensive, content is tough, and a lot of brands want one piece of content to work across multiple platforms and that's not always the case, that something you post on Facebook is something you can use in Instagram," Barna-Stern said. Every platform should be handled as its own, individual channel.

That doesn't mean you can't carry a campaign from one platform to another. Related creative can help bring home a message and create a connected experience, it just shouldn't look like the brand is recycling.

4. Don't forget users use Instagram's search function

Barna-Stern said that the expansion of the Explore tab and Trending tab underlines how people use Instagram as a search tool. Discovery is important as users both casually and deliberately seek out new accounts to follow or posts to look at.

Plus, unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram doesn't have a built-in "re-gram" function (like a retweet or a share) that would make it easier to break into new audiences.

5. Don't over complicate your images

"Some of the best shots on Instagram are these simple, beautifully composed shots," Barna-Stern said.

Instagram is about the visuals, so make sure they're strong and compelling, not cluttered with ad copy, or so buried in filters that they lose their value or authenticity.

6. Don't be too self-promotional

"If you're going to feature your brand, do it subtly," Sutter said.

She said one of the reasons people like Instagram is because it doesn't feel overly commercial. Keep that in mind. People will unfollow you if they think you're selling them too hard.

Sutter cited Tesla as a good example of a brand that does feature its product, but also provides plenty of visual value — yes, you're looking at a bunch of Tesla cars, but the images are extremely attractive, showing the cars in different scenic locations. Or, there's the photo of the car with the vanity plate that reads "LOL OIL."

7. Do think about how regular users use Instagram

We make fun of Instagram pics of food. But we still post them, and we still like them.

"There's a reason they're so popular. They're relatable and everybody likes to eat," Barna-Stern said.

Sutter gave the example of the Starwood Preferred Guest account, which has also been one of the first advertisers on Instagram.

"It's hotel shots, and beach shots, and pool shots that I would put on there," she said. And that's a good thing.

That's exactly the kind of vibe that would make an average user want to invite a brand into their feed alongside friends, family, and whoever else.

"Use Instagram like users use Instagram," said Barrett, "Instagram is an ongoing collection of little moments that tell one long story. Don't sell too hard. Be beautiful and aspirational and emotional and sometimes even nostalgic."

Airbnb does this really well. Their posts of Airbnb spaces around the world feel like the kinds of pictures someone you know might post while traveling — and many of them are.

8. Do consider user-generated content

That brings us to another point — don't forget that user-generated content can help bolster your account. Instagram offers the opportunity for fairly direct interaction with consumers, Sutter said. People will tag brands, and brands are wise to pay attention to that.

If you take a look at the captions of those Airbnb pics, you'll often see a photo credit linking back to a regular user. Often, the way they found those photos was through a mention or hashtag. And, if you dig for those pics on their original Instagram account, you'll see Airbnb asked permission to use it before doing so.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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